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A pleasing comparison

Joel Fitzgibbon’s resignation last week was the proper conclusion to a sequence of blunders and dubious oversights that brought his fitness for office into question.

10 June 2009

12:00 AM

10 June 2009

12:00 AM

Joel Fitzgibbon’s resignation last week was the proper conclusion to a sequence of blunders and dubious oversights that brought his fitness for office into question.

Joel Fitzgibbon’s resignation last week was the proper conclusion to a sequence of blunders and dubious oversights that brought his fitness for office into question. Any behaviour that might be perceived as relating to a Cabinet minister’s duties must accord with the highest possible standards. Undisclosed gifts from a Chinese businesswoman some years ago might have been forgivable, if embarrassing, but Mr Fitzgibbon’s facilitation of a business meeting between his brother and military staff rightly ended his commission.

In any case, the simmering disquiet within his own defence department was bound to impede its effective operation. The Prime Minister was right to accept Mr Fitzgibbon’s resignation, and judicious to select Senator John Faulkner as his replacement. The senator, a wise stalwart of the parliamentary Labor party from the Keating years, will prove a deft hand at restoring ministerial authority and enacting changes envisaged in the defence department’s recent white paper. As for Mr Fitzgibbon, he can go on representing the people of Hunter in New South Wales, and hope the Rudd government’s tenure is long enough for his career to recuperate.

While commentators might bemoan another example of ministerial impropriety, Mr Fitzgibbon’s resignation ironically highlights Australia’s political integrity, especially in a relative sense. This Queen’s Birthday week should remind Australians not only of the good works of their fellow citizens but the success of their politics too. The Rudd government has shown commendable rectitude: only one ministerial resignation in 18 months, compared with five in the first term of the previous government. Whatever its policy failings — and we have highlighted many — this government must so far be one of our most upstanding.

Meanwhile, something is rotten in the UK. It is mired in a series of debilitating and humiliating political scandals. Revelations that ministers and parliamentarians have been making illegitimate expense claims — claims on second homes being the most common — have sparked justifiable outrage. The Home Secretary and the Defence Secretary along with at least three other cabinet ministers have all resigned within the last fortnight. Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, has had to repay improper expense claims. Daily calls for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to resign undermine his authority and mock any perception his government is busy with policy. Public confidence in the government has reached a nadir. On the back of such consternation, the British National Party, which espouses racially motivated policies, last week obtained two seats in the European Parliament.

Sympathetic calls to pay politicians more are misguided. British politicians, like their Australian counterparts, are well paid. Their salaries alone place them in the top few percentage points of the national income distribution. And the prestige and influence associated with their positions surely compensates for any perceived financial shortfall. The problem is morality, not poverty.

Contrast with the UK is valid more generally too. Australia and the UK are indubitably linked, constitutionally and culturally; but Australians no longer look to the UK for political example. Standards in Canberra appear to exceed those in London. Take Australia’s national honours system or its method of election to its chamber of review, two hallmarks of any political system.

While Australians take for granted their bipartisan national honours system, the UK’s own honours system is tarnished. For a start, the adjudicating body for ordinary honours sits within the Cabinet Office, whereas its Australian counterpart provides an independent body that reports directly to the governor-general. The phrase ‘cash for honours’ is as well known in the UK as ‘cash for comment’ is in Australia. And it is clear which is the more serious national indictment.

Much of the problem stems from the UK’s parallel system of peerages — more coveted and important than ordinary honours — which are subject to direct political appointment and have become renowned for their relationship with political donations. For all the complaints about our senate, at least it is fairly elected and free from cronyism.

Although the monarch’s presence is observed in Australia almost always through her vice-regal representatives, Australia curiously appears to have ended up with the better constitutional set-up. Were our own polity racked by malfeasance at the highest levels of government, for example, the governor-general would be expected to call an early election to save the office of government from further damaging opprobrium. Yet our counterparts in the UK enjoy no such safety valve; the Queen would be far more constrained than her representatives, federal and state, to act unilaterally in the nation’s interest.

Australian probity is widely noted. Australia and New Zealand are the only Anglo-Saxon countries in the top ten nations of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2008, which surveys global perceptions of international corruption levels. No country ranked higher than Australia has a larger population. The UK finished 16th, behind Hong Kong and Germany. The nation that started as a penal colony has done well.

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